The 2003 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner could rekindle interest in the sport with a Breeders' Cup win.
Funny Cide gets his chance to be the horse that saved racing again.
Shuffled into the corner of the heart-warming story department when Smarty Jones, an upstart Pennsylvania-bred, won the first two legs of the Triple Crown, Funny Cide, the wildly popular gelding who did the same in 2003, has returned to reclaim his fan base. While Smarty Jones begins his tenure at stud at Three Chimneys Farm in Midway, Ky., Funny Cide has a chance to embellish his legacy today in the $4-million, 11/4-mile Breeders' Cup Classic, one of eight races on the $14-million Breeders' Cup program at Lone Star Park in Grand Prairie, Texas.
It has been a steep climb back, repleat with losses that seemed to signal his career was sputtering to a close.
"Sadly, we did have some tough (losses in 2003), but I think this year he's coming into the race really on an up note," said Jack Knowlton, managing partner of the Sackatoga Stable group that owns Funny Cide. "Barclay (Tagg) reports he's doing as well as he's ever done. Last year was a disappointment to us, and this year we're hoping for a change."
Change is evident around the barn. It's generally easier to coax a sunrise from the west than a hint of emotion from Tagg, but the veteran trainer was bubbling after Funny Cide's workout Tuesday in Texas, proclaiming he "is doing better than he ever has in his life. "What I'm saying is the truth," Tagg said. "All I tell is the truth. He's leveled off a little and become more sensible. He is still a very strong and a hard horse to gallop, but (assistant trainer) Robin (Smullen) and I have figured him out."
Doing so could help him atone for a dismal showing in the 2003 Classic, which followed a lackluster summer after his wins in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. Funny Cide labored at Santa Anita Park in 100-degree heat and smoke from nearby wildfires, finishing ninth of 10 under unfamiliar jockey Julie Krone. Tagg rested Funny Cide until January and reintroduced him to the track and the winner's circle in a Gulfstream Park allowance race, setting up third-place runs in the Grade I Donn Handicap (though 81/2 lengths back) and Grade II New Orleans. After winning a Grade III stakes April 4 at Aqueduct, Funny Cide lost against higher company, finishing fifth in the Grade I Metropolitan Handicap despite carrying a moderate 118 pounds.
Smarty Jones, meanwhile, had become the fairy tale du jour. Owned by used car salesman Roy Chapman and wife Pat, trained by a little-known Philadelphia Park conditioner John Servis and ridden by mercurial jockey Stewart Elliott, Smarty Jones won the Derby and Preakness before Birdstone denied him the Triple Crown in the Belmont.
Beginning in June, however, 4-year-old Funny Cide produced second-place finishes in the Grade II MassCap (by a head) and Saratoga Breeders' Cup Handicap around a third (by less than a length) in the Grade I Suburban Handicap.
Though disappointing losses, they set up a start in the 11/4-mile Grade I Jockey Club Gold Cup. Tagg told Knowlton before the race that he did not want to take Funny Cide to Texas without a victory.
The front-runner gave up an early lead and fell to third near the far turn - "I thought he was done," Tagg said - but he rallied to chase down Newfoundland and win by three-quarters of a length under regular jockey Jose Santos, who had missed Funny Cide's last start because of a broken arm. The victory on a soggy Belmont Park track could not replace the win - and footnote as the sport's 12th Triple Crown winner - he was denied in the slop there in June 2003, but it showed the gelding had more to give.
Every bit should be exposed in a field that includes returning Classic champion Pleasantly Perfect, Birdstone, unbeatens Roses in May and Ghostzapper and 6-year-old mare Azeri, the 2002 horse of the year.
"Last year at this time, we were reaching," Knowlton said. "This year, he's clearly earned his way here. We feel he is legitimately one of the top handicap horses and belongs in this race."
A win would again thrust the pesky gelding into the public eye in one of the few months of the year the public pays attention to horse racing. Maybe he can be the horse that saves racing. Maybe not. But he apparently is game to keep trying.
AROUND THE TRACK: Pollard's Vision, the one-eyed colt named for Seabiscuit's jockey, rallied to win the Grade III $250,000 Lone Star Derby. ... Silver Charm, winner of the 1997 Kentucky Derby and Preakness, was sold to the Japan Racing Association and will stand at stud in that country.